Everyone knows what a character class is. From D&D to Diablo and from Final Fantasy to Facebook personality tests, the notion of starting your RPG adventure with a Fighter, Thief, Mage, or Cleric has transcended D&D and TTRPGs in general to become a nerd pop culture staple. In the modern TTRPG hobby, though, classes are but one way to present a set of archetypes from which to build a character.
Games have been tweaking and riffing on the notion of character classes for decades. For much of RPG history, these riffs were intended to increase breadth and lessen restrictions inherent in the fairly structured D&D classes. Rifts kept the specificity but went wide: Instead of “Fighter” or “Thief” you had the drug-addled Juicer, the Glitter Boy who started the game with a giant mech suit, and a literal baby dragon. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay didn’t go as crazy, but used a career system which maintained some archetypal character restrictions but allowed a fair amount of choice in how the characters advanced. Still others hewed fairly close to the character class idea, but tried to make classes less restrictive. While Cyberpunk 2020 had nine distinct Roles, the Roles had one unique special ability and otherwise picked their skills from a common list. And this is to say nothing of games which eschewed archetypal restrictions altogether, like the generic stalwarts Hero and GURPS.
In the 1990s a different archetypal approach was popularized by Vampire: the Masquerade and later titles in the World of Darkness series. These games aimed to go narrower in their archetypal choices by restricting the characters to one central idiom. Within the implied setting of D&D a vampire is but one thing, but in the World of Darkness there is significantly more depth. As a result, choosing your Vampire’s clan is a decision as impactful as choosing a character class, but one that is specifying a narrower set of choices given an arguably narrower (though equally if not more rich) game.
The notion of narrowing was the one that carried through into modern game design. While designers of the 80s and 90s could be forgiven for believing that players wanted more choices and fewer restrictions, what proved out was that players were interested in meaningful decisions. As much as the D&D class list has expanded over the years, one place I must concede that D&D has always done well is making sure that each character class feels different. You can see the value of this cross over to other designers in how they revise their games. Take my favorite example, Cyberpunk 2020, and its new edition Cyberpunk Red. When the Cyberpunk roles were revised for Red, they weren’t broadened, they were made more unique, more specific. Nomads gain access to vehicles significantly easier than any other role. Fixers literally can buy more things than other characters. Medias are fed rumors on a constant basis. And ultimately, these were by far the most important improvements to the game. Characters that feel different and do different things are less likely to overshadow each other.
If we want to look at characters feeling different and doing different things, though, we must look at two fairly recent indie games that took completely different approaches to character archetypes. These games, Apocalypse World and Troika, introduced two new ways of thinking about character archetypes. Apocalypse World introduced the idea of the playbook, which took classes and rendered them down so purely that each character archetype nearly has its own rules. Troika introduced a totally new execution of Character Backgrounds, where a randomly rolled archetype serves as character creation, setting touchstone, and starting plot hook all in one.
In D&D, each character class has unique and non-overlapping abilities. In Apocalypse World, there are two portions of mechanics: The things everyone can do, and the things that only a given playbook can do. Now, given the disparity in mechanical density between modern D&D and Apocalypse World, this is not as stark a difference as it may sound. Still, the concept that playbooks are so removed from each other gave some of the fictional ‘permission’ to have the archetypes in Apocalypse World be so different from one another. An easy example is the Hardholder, who literally runs a settlement. There being a settlement to run in the game is at least partly dependent on whether or not someone plays a Hardholder. If there is an Angel in the game, how healing works changes significantly. If there is a Brainer in the game, how the setting element of the Psychic Maelstrom works changes significantly.
What playbooks did that made them such an essential part of the Powered by the Apocalypse mechanics was offer the mechanical grounding of classes to narrow idioms. Ultimately, “fighter”, “healer”, “thief” and other class-adjacent archetypes are fairly broad. Similarly, where Apocalypse World tried to emulate these broad archetypes were where its playbooks were weakest. The Angel reads really well, but still suffers from “cleric syndrome” in play. Similarly, the Gunlugger appealed to the sort of players who like combat-heavy characters, but its links to the post-apocalypse genre were tenuous and it didn’t always feel like a Gunlugger had things to do other than shoot their guns. The flipside of these were playbooks like the Driver, which is so Mad Max that it makes the character harder to play, lest you not live up to the trope. This is also one of the reasons Dungeon World, though popular, fell down in the PbtA pantheon: D&D classes are generally too broad to make effective playbooks.
So what do effective playbooks look like? My favorite (and Seamus’s favorite I think) example would be Masks. Every Masks playbook is an entire comic character trope wrapped into a small splash of rules, and you can’t help but play out the arc as your character grows. Sally “The Bull” and Gil “The Beacon” didn’t come out like cardboard cutouts of their inspirations, but we knew where they came from, and that did make the game more special. Another great example is The Veil, though the playbooks in The Veil highlight a different issue: as Cyberpunk fiction is closer aligned with hardboiled fiction and its solo detectives, getting an ensemble of Veil playbooks together and pointed in the right direction is a notable GMing challenge.
But let’s say you want a challenge. Let’s say you want to create a party of unrelated weirdos and tie them together with something world-shattering, arbitrary, or perhaps both. In that case, I highly suggest you read Troika.
Remember how Rifts allowed you to put a 30-foot tall mech, Indiana Jones-esque Rogue Scholar, and baby dragon in the same party? Troika laughs. Your Troika party could have a Wandering Knight (with you so far) along with a Zoanthrop, someone who has voluntarily removed their forebrain (wait…what?). Along with them could be a Befouler of Ponds, a follower of the great Toad God who, well, befouls ponds (…you’re kidding me). While these characters aren’t all that different mechanically, in large part due to Troika’s paucity of mechanics, they all drive the game and the plot much the same as something like a playbook would. While a playbook serves as a vehicle to play through a genre signpost, though, a background is more a single anchor into the setting. Each player gets one, and a party with a Wandering Knight, a Zoanthrop, and a Befouler of Ponds is going to start with a slightly different set of setting assumptions than one where the Befouler of Ponds is replaced by a Monkey-Monger.
Backgrounds are typically a character generation approach used in light, OSR-adjacent games because there are many more of them than there are classes in something like D&D, and actually writing mechanics to cover them all would be prohibitive. Troika has 36 backgrounds, three times as many as there are classes in D&D 5th Edition. Electric Bastionland, another game using backgrounds for its character archetypes, has 100. If Electric Bastionland had more than two pages of core rules, it would be much more difficult to write backgrounds like the Orphan Pack and include in the flavor text “you may be more than one person”. The intent of Backgrounds is in some ways similar to Playbooks, namely to make each character unique and tied into the setting. The execution, needless to say, is completely different. Playbooks generally guide you into a character concept you’re either familiar with or can, after reading, understand. Backgrounds demand you ask questions. While the first question you may ask after rolling a Befouler of Ponds is “Why??”, after that you’re going to want to know other things, like who the Toad God is and why you follow him. It is definitely an OSR innovation, the background spread, because it is all about encouraging players to face the setting and the fiction when trying to figure out who their character is instead of facing the mechanics.
So what do we do with these things? How do different approaches to archetypes actually affect how you play games? A lot of it, in my mind at least, comes down to presentation. Classes have always been an attempt to broadcast to players what different characters are supposed to do, especially what they’re supposed to do differently from the others. The playbook approach is really no different. Each character gets their own corner of the rules, and as a result Powered by the Apocalypse games often present much more breadth of character choice than more traditional rulesets do. The background approach comes at character breadth from a different angle. Instead of trying to define roles by mechanics, Backgrounds provide literally dozens of ways to link into the implied setting of the game, and tend to provide something that guides a character more in terms of the setting and the story than the mechanics. Another thing that these differing modes of character creation do, which is amplified by the games which include them, is emphasize the random/deliberate divide in character creation. As Backgrounds give you essentially a list of touchpoints and questions, they’re well suited to being randomly selected and shaking up the setting elements that show up in the game. Playbooks, like classes, tend to be more appealing to those who like to choose how they’re going to play.
Archetypes will never go away; we love tropes and we love knowing where we fit in a story or on a battlefield. That said, there are many ways for this to shake out. Both OSR and PbtA designs have given us new and interesting ways to create characters: Get a section of the rulebook to yourself with a playbook, or carve out your own bit of the setting with a background. The idea of playbooks, backgrounds, and their progenitor classes is all essentially the same, with different spins put on what you want to be special about the character. That said, it’s worth considering why different games use different approaches to introducing archetypes which help us all get characters to the table.
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4 thoughts on “Building Characters From Archetypes”
Interesting post, which got me thinking about how D&D almost seems to have gone the other way with the characters, in that the different classes now seem to have so much crossover they feel almost homogenous, certainly compared with the distinction between classes in BECMI. Maybe time for an answering post of my own…
I think that’s a good point! I was thinking a lot about character creation when writing this, and I think D&D 5e has strong class distinctions *at character creation*. Like you say, though, as you advance and start unlocking more options, they tend towards crossover rather than leaning in to each class’s unique elements.
WFRP’s career system is still one of my favourite frameworks for advancement, both mechanically and narratively.
I’m a fan of the the crazy backgrounds forcing player questions too, the anti-canon that lets a GM wrap the setting around the characters instead of bashing the characters into the setting and hoping they fit.
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